The 30 Most Overlooked Debut Movies Made By Famous Directors

10. Play Misty for Me (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1971)


Eastwood transitioned from acting to directing with Play Misty for Me, a psychosexual thriller following a radio DJ (Eastwood) being pursued by a scorned lover/obsessive fan (Jessica Walter). The film is tinged with male neuroses and women’s lib, creating a portrait of an unhinged woman who will stop at nothing to get her man. Play Misty helped usher in the “psycho woman” genre, while also helping Eastwood polish his directorial chops.


9. Forbrydelsens element (Dir. Lars von Trier, 1984)

The Element of Crime

Von Trier is arguably the enfant terrible of Denmark. His controversial career began with Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime), a film that follows a police officer who tracks a killer by adopting the mentality of a killer.

Employing a blistering dystopia and criminal mindset, von Trier attempts to construct a carnal subjectivity based on psychosexuality and homicidal instincts. These themes would carryover into much more explicit territory as von Trier would later deconstruct American hypocrisy, the war between men and women, and nymphomania.


8. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1967)

Who’s That Knocking at My Door

Before Scorsese became a staple for cinephiles, he was a film student who was experimenting with form and style. He created his first feature by extending his student film, Bring on the Dancing Girls, renaming it I Call First, then renaming it again as Who’s That Knocking at My Door?.

The film follows a devout Catholic man as he tries to forge a relationship with a damaged woman. It exhibits liturgical themes and a New York landscape that would extend to many of Scorsese’s 70s masterpieces, though in later films, Scorsese would add in more elements of machismo and ultraviolence.


7. They Live by Night (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1948)

They Live by Night

Underappreciated by contemporaneous audiences, Nicolas Ray’s films slowly developed followings amongst cinephiles and film enthusiasts. His first feature, They Live By Night (based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us), endured a difficult distribution as the studio hindered the release date, yet the final product was well worth the wait.

The film is a bleak and subtextual story of lovers on the run, exposing the insidious nature of American ideals. Ray, like Douglas Sirk, would fashion a career out of exploring social/gendered conflicts, indulgence, and the decline of the wholesome image of America.


6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1945)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Kazan’s knack for sentimental melodrama, emotionally wrought characters, and socio-economic explorations was prominently featured in his first feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (based on the novel by Betty Smith). The film follows a poor family as they constantly struggle to make ends meet. Though not Kazan’s best work, the tearjerker still manages to display themes that would resonate throughout Kazan’s filmography, including his examination of the declining idea of the “American Dream.”


5. Je tu il elle (Dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975)


Akerman’s early shorts emulated Jean-Luc Godard’s explosive style, yet her feature films employed a minimalist approach to her subjects. Her first film, Je tu il elle, plays like a rehearsal for Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman. It constructs a slow paced, yet intricate, examination of a woman (Akerman herself) as she eats sugar, discusses relationships with a truck driver, and has sex with a female lover.

The sparse editing, central female subjectivity, long runtime, and aimless narrative helped Akerman rewrite film grammar to include sexual difference. Though not as explicitly confrontational as Godard’s style, Akerman’s style was equally explosive.


4. Performance (Dirs. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

Performance (1970)

Transitioning from cinematography to directing, Nicolas Roeg created quite the splash when he co-directed Performance, a graphic psychosexual/psychedelic exploration of identity. Employing explicit imagery and the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, Performance was notably controversial for its frank depiction of sex and drugs.

Roeg was never one to repress the sexuality of his characters, and his later films would not only feature his predilection for explicit nudity (Bad Timing, The Man Who Fell to Earth), but would also help him create some gorgeous works of art (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now).


3. Metropolitan (Dir. Whit Stillman, 1990)


Stillman’s filmography is an exercise in satire, following the “last days” of eras, politics, groups, and music. His first film, Metropolitan, introduced this satirical flare as it chronicled a crumbling group of friends and debutante ball enthusiasts.

Stillman, though satirical, manages to keep a healthy distance away from his characters, allowing them to indulge in their vices and delusions, yet never judging them for their eccentric behavior. It is an intricate balancing act that creates frustrating, yet likeable, characters who comment on the state of the world around them.


2. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Dir. Paul Mazursky, 1969)

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Mazursky’s illustrious career began with the ambitious sex comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Exploring the sexual liberation of the 1960s, Mazursky introduces audiences to the titular characters as they navigate relationships and monogamy in contemporary society.

The film chronicles the characters’ sexual repression and liberation, leading to a delicious climax (pun intended) involving Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice features the best of Mazursky’s talents as both a screenwriter and director, showcasing a nuanced tale of raw emotions sprinkled with moments of humor.


1. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Dir. Louis Malle, 1958)

Elevator to the Gallows

Combining a modernist sensibility with an infectious jazz score (composed by Miles Davis, specifically for the film), Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) helped put the new director into the international spotlight. His film – which follows two tangential love stories that lead to murderous results – not only showcased Malle’s talents as a director, but it also introduced the world to the icy visage and palpable sexuality of Jeanne Moreau.

It is a cool and slick film whose metaphorical time bomb ticks away as the police zero in on murderers. You’ll never forget the Champs-Elysées scene when non-actors (unbeknownst to them) are filmed reacting to Jeanne Moreau walking down the infamous Parisian street.

Author Bio: Jose Gallegos is an aspiring filmmaker with a B.A. in Film Production/French from USC and an M.A. in Cinema, Media Studies from UCLA. His main interests are the French New Wave, Left Bank Cinema, and Spanish Cinema under Franco. You can read his film reviews at and view his film poster collections at